Elon Musk says we should all get off our duffs and go back to the office. People who want to work from home aren't just ''phoning it in'' from ''some remote pseudo-office'' as he's put it in the past.

Now he says we're immoral too.

'' The whole notion of work from home is a bit like the fake Marie Antoinette quote, 'Let them eat cake','' Musk told CNBC this week. 

Factory workers, service workers and construction workers can't work from home, so why do people in the ''laptop classes'' think they should be able to do so?

'' It's not just a productivity thing,'' he said. '' I think it's morally wrong.''

A cynic might note that factory workers can't work from private jets, either, yet Musk's commitment to workers equity didn't prevent his plane from making a reported 171 trips last year.

A cynic might also point out that man who makes cars for a living has a stake in the perpetuation of Americans driving to and from work day after day.

But I'm not so cynical. Musk isn't alone among corporate executives in seeing employees' reluctance to return to the office as a genuine economic problem. 

Mark Zuckerberg of Meta, Bob Iger of Disney, Andy Jassy of Amazon, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase and others have been pleading with or arm-twisting workers to come back.

Companies have tried carrots - redesigning offices  -and they've tried sticks, like reversing remote work policies at the same time they announced huge layoffs. But in a tight labor market, the office has been a tough cell.

The average occupancy rate across 10 major cities has plateaued at around 50 percent. The Wall Street Journal reported last week, citing data from Kastle Systems. 

Remote work looks like it's turning from a pandemic necessity into permanent necessity into a permanent feature of the American workplace.

First let's address why folks aren't coming back -and why they probably won't unless we fix a big problem with office work with office work that few C.E.O.s seem to mention : getting to and getting home from the office.

Survey after survey bears this out.

If we want people to go to the office more often, we have to do something about a ritual of American life that's time-consuming, emotionally taxing, environmentally toxic and expensive : the daily commute.

For many, the pandemic-era shift to remote work proved that all the schlepping was unnecessary. They can't unsee all the wasted time, and questioning their morality isn't going to change that.

They aren't taking a moral stance, they're just making a rational calculation : They can get a lot more done - in their work lives and in the rest of their lives - if they skip the commute.

Liberty Street Economics, a blog that features writing from New York Fed analysts, reported last year that collectively, Americans now spend 60 million fewer hours per day traveling to work.

That's 60 million hours for which they weren't being compensated that they can now spend exercising, taking care of their children, getting a bit more sleep and starting their work day earlier or ending it later.

Workers are delighted by the switch. According to a survey by the Conference Board, overall job satisfaction in 2022 was at just over 62 percent, a high not seen in decades, and people with hybrid jobs that allowed them to work at home and at a job site were the happiest.

A working paper published last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research even found that that the rise of remote work ''lessons wage growth pressures and [modestly] eases the challenge facing monetary policymakers in their efforts to bring down inflation without stalling the economy.''

The Master Essay continues. The World Students Society thanks author Farhad Manjoo.


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